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The initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. have put the resourcefulness of managed service operations to the test. Many IT services firms are discovering greater flexibility and new ways to support their customers.
The U.S.'s response to the spread of COVID-19 went into full gear only recently, with the promotion of social-distancing guidelines and numerous states issuing stay-at-home directives. As a result, businesses across the nation are rapidly migrating office-based employees to remote work, and IT service providers are finding themselves becoming a lifeline to these organizations during the dizzying transition.
MNJ Technologies, an MSP based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., continues to handle a deluge of customer requests as businesses go remote.
"Nationally, there is huge movement toward working remotely -- obviously, especially in the states that have already gone on 'shelter at home.' But even in states that aren't, we have had a lot of our enterprise and mid-tier customers move to that. And it's created a tremendous strain on a lot of areas," said Benjamin Niernberg, executive vice president at MNJ.
The remote work rush
As the surge of remote work transitions began, MNJ's managed service operations have helped customers on multiple fronts. The company quickly saw three areas emerge as particularly challenging, however.
Niernberg said the rapid transition created heavy demand on hardware products to set up employees at home, all at a time when the global tech supply chain is off kilter. The demand for laptops, webcams, monitors, keyboards among other technology continues to be difficult to meet.
"There has been a run on a ton of hardware," Niernberg said.
While the hardware constraints have not yet improved, MNJ's distributor partners, which include Ingram Micro, Tech Data and Synnex Corp., "are doing a phenomenal job of staying up and working and helping us through [this]," Niernberg noted. He added that many customers have been flexible during the shortage, opting to purchase products based on what's available versus preferences.
MNJ also saw the shift to remote work taxing customers' infrastructure in new ways. In many cases, these remote work setups have strained that infrastructure. Most companies haven't yet figured out how to solve this problem but "they are all getting there," he noted.
Additionally, MNJ customers needed support for deploying collaborations tools, such as Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex Teams, to connect employees. "All of these collaboration tools were now starting to get used, so people needed increased licensing or help with them," Niernberg said. "We went through all that, where now IT is becoming a key component to how we communicate, how we create [corporate] climate and culture, and to what is now becoming a remote workforce across the U.S."
Consulting on temporary remote work policies
Anticipating Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order, MNJ decided to have its roughly 130 employees work remotely and, as a company, attempt to be "leaders in this field," Niernberg said. Prior to the transition, MNJ allowed 20 to 30 employees to work remotely on a permanent basis but had never implemented a temporary remote work policy.
"We very quickly, within 24 hours, wrote a customized temporary work remote policy for all of our employees," Niernberg said. Developing the policy was a concerted effort between MNJ's marketing, HR and the executive teams.
Ryan EtinsonCEO Americas, Syntax
One thing the company focused on was maintaining company climate and culture. "We spend a lot of time on our climate and our culture, and we wanted to make sure we didn't lose that," he said.
MNJ's remote work policy asks employees to use video calls for communications whenever possible. "We wanted people to be face to face," he said. MNJ also provides video-based activities to keep employees interacting, including trivia nights, virtual happy hours and a wine education class. For employees at home with children, MNJ conducts weekly coloring contests as well as a noon story session where children can watch and listen to an MNJ executive read a short story.
"We are doing all of these things to keep morale up, to keep our climate and culture up and to keep people connecting," Niernberg said.
MNJ has extended some of these video-based resources, such as the story time, to the general public, as well.
After MNJ developed and implemented the temporary remote work policy, executives realized midsized to large organizations across the U.S. needed to develop similar temporary policies for the first time.
"We actually started to market … and offer that service, where [customers] can benchmark against what we did," Niernberg said. Customers also receive a 30-minute call with MNJ's in-house general council to discuss how MNJ can help them through the remote work transition from an IT standpoint.
Providing flexibility to affected customers
From its offices in China, Europe, and North and Central America, managed cloud provider Syntax closely watched as the coronavirus evolved and crept across the continents. "We have seen this thing coming, and it has been affecting our business," said Ryan Etinson, CEO Americas at Syntax. "If it affects our customers, it affects us."
The Montreal-based company focuses on managing customers' mission-critical applications, primarily ERP workloads. Syntax's global customer base ranges from companies between $250 million to $10 billion in annual revenues and spans multiple industries, including those most devastated by COVID-19's spread, Etinson said.
Syntax has responded to the crisis by providing payment relief and other assistance to customers in affected sectors, such as vacation/lodging and retail. "Everyone has to try to play a role in keeping everybody afloat during these times, so we are doing what we can within our financial abilities to try to help sustain some of our customers through payment relief." He said hotel chains, for example, still need their systems operational, supported and secured regardless of whether or not they have bookings.
Syntax also introduced free desktop-as-a-service and managed VPN services. "We are offering to configure and support [machines] at no charge, basically through AWS," Etinson said. Syntax designed the services -- in part -- for clients with employees who use office-based workstations and need access to them from their homes.
"There are a lot of companies like that that have those types of challenges," Etinson noted. "To set up all these accounts, configure the machines and support them is not a small task, but we are trying to play a small role in this large pandemic."
The pandemic is affecting Syntax customers in innumerable ways. While some of its clients are in industries hit hard by the virus, others are experiencing strains of another kind. For example, Syntax works with providers of online grocery distribution in various U.S. cities. The spike in grocery purchases is putting enormous pressure on these organizations, their supply chains and systems.
"These [customers] have a different kind of problem altogether," he said. "We have to support those businesses in a different way than we have to support some of the others that have been crippled by this situation. We have to be as flexible as we can."
An uptick in project-based consulting work
Contrary to Syntax's expectations, the company's project-based professional services portion of its business has not slowed down under the pandemic. In fact, in working remotely, many customers are finding they have more internal resources available to focus on and tackle projects, Etinson said. Some are even investing more heavily in internal projects so that they can emerge from the pandemic "better and stronger."
"[Projects] are actually accelerating," Etinson said.
He also noted that Syntax's pipeline of customers adopting one of the company's private, hybrid or public cloud offerings remains intact. "Unless these companies are in one of those industries that are suffering the most … the customers are continuing on their plans."
Syntax is investing in its internal resources, as well. "We are pushing the gas pedal to the floor in a lot of our internal projects and upgrades … because now is the time where people are available."
Niernberg said MNJ is also bulking up and enhancing its managed service operations. "A lot of what we are doing is technology improvements to help with increased workloads. … We are going to be bullish in coming out of this."
IT service providers strengthen client relationships
Business's evolving IT requirements for managing the COVID-19 crisis are bound to shine a light on service providers. For companies such as MNJ and Syntax, their handling of the pandemic's disruptions has cast their capabilities into high relief.
"Customers are looking at us differently now," Niernberg said, adding that the pandemic's business impact has infused the term trusted advisor with more meaning. "It's giving us the opportunity to really show customers how different we are and how we truly are focused on improving their businesses, not just, 'Can I sell you a laptop?'"
"What is interesting is … right now what [our customers] are asking from us is to just make sure that they don't have to worry about their systems or worry about us," Etinson said. "So, what we are trying to do is deliver the best service we possibly can right now, make sure availability is there, make sure uptime is there, make sure performance is there and make sure security is there."